Author Interviews

GUY RAZ, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Our book today is a story so riveting it's hard to believe it's nonfiction. For 30 years, a man who was born in Germany as Christian Gerhartsreiter claimed to be someone else in cities across America. He posed as a British aristocrat, a Las Vegas cardiologist, a Hollywood producer, a New York bond broker, and finally, as a member of the famous Rockefeller family.

His ruse came to an end in 2008 when the man then known as Clark Rockefeller was charged with kidnapping his daughter. He was convicted. And this past week, he pleaded not guilty to another crime, committing murder in Los Angeles two decades ago.

Mark Seal, a write for Vanity Fair, writes about Gerhartsreiter in his new book, "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit." And the story begins in the late 1970s when the 17-year-old Gerhartsreiter decided to leave his small town in Bavaria and head to the U.S., specifically to another small town in Connecticut.

MARK SEAL: And it was here that he began his journey. He was obsessed with American television, especially, I hope you remember, "Gilligan's Island..."

RAZ: Yes.

SEAL: ...and the eccentric East Coast millionaire Thurston Howell III.


JIM BACKUS: (as Thurston Howell III) I'll appeal. I'll take it to the Supreme Court. I'll go even higher, Rules Committee of the Newport Country Club.

RAZ: He wanted to be like Thurston Howell III.

SEAL: That's right. Even in Germany, as a student in Germany, he would call the motor vehicle department and act like he was a millionaire wanting to register a Rolls Royce when in actuality he was a middle-class kid in the middle of this tiny village in Bavaria.

So he always wanted to be someone else according to the records and the people that I interviewed. And pretty soon, he had left his family in Connecticut, and he was on his way to college in Wisconsin. And he told his roommate there he was from Boston, that his father was an industrialist. And to prove that he was from Boston, he would eat a Boston cream pie every day.

RAZ: He soon takes on the name of Christopher Mountbatten Chichester and eventually ends up in San Marino in Southern California...

SEAL: Yes.

RAZ: ...very wealthy suburb of Los Angeles and ingratiates himself into the kind of the high society there. How does he do it, and who is funding him?

SEAL: Well, the police say that he had various little scams going on along the way. He had money from his parents, but he had no occupation or no real job at this point. But he was welcomed in San Marino. Now, you have to picture this place. It's only 12 miles out of Los Angeles. And it's like...

RAZ: And by the way, we're talking about the mid-'80s, 1980s here.

SEAL: That's right. So when this young man came, they welcomed him. And when his claims became grandiose, they thought: Well, he's eccentric. He's a Mountbatten. He's a Chichester. He claimed to be related to Sir Francis Chichester who sailed around the world.

RAZ: He eventually moved in with somebody in San Marino. Her name was Ruth "Didi" Sohus. How did he get connected with her?

SEAL: He was connected to the church. That's what he would always do. And in San Marino, it was a church called the Church of Our Savior. And he became an usher, and he would always be at the social hour. And he met some people there who told him about this apartment and a woman named Didi Sohus' house. And that's when the almost Alfred Hitchcock part of the book began.

RAZ: Which involves, of course, murder.

SEAL: Possibly. It involved a missing person's case. What happened was is that Didi had a son, a young son named John Sohus who was a low-level computer operator. And Christian Chichester was living rent-free in the garage apartment when John and his fiancee, Linda, moved into the main house with John's mother. And then suddenly, this couple disappears under extremely mysterious circumstances.

And years later, the house was sold and the new owners were putting in a swimming pool and the crew dug up the bones of what is believed to have been John Sohus.

RAZ: Wow. After that incident, he leaves. He moved to Greenwich in Connecticut.

SEAL: That's right. Yeah.

RAZ: And he takes on a whole new persona.

SEAL: That's right. And the police were wanting to question him. He was a person of interest in this missing person's case after the bones were discovered. But they couldn't find him because he was under a new name, Christopher Crowe.

By now, he says he's a producer and director of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," which was indeed a television series at the time with a director named Christopher Crowe, only not him. He begins working at esteemed financial institutions on the East Coast.

RAZ: I'm speaking with the author Mark Seal about his new book. It's called "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit." It's the story of Clark Rockefeller, a man who conned high society from California to Connecticut for more than 30 years.

Now, he had a lot of weird habits, right? I mean, he would...

SEAL: Yes.

RAZ: write about how he would initial his - he had his initials embroidered on his clothing. At one point, he would eat very peculiar and specific foods as well.

SEAL: Yes. When he became Clark Rockefeller, he became eccentric in a way that people chalked up to being a Rockefeller. Just a few of the eccentricities, he never carry money. He was paranoid about security and privacy to the point where he would carry a radio device that he said was connected to the Rockefeller offices.

He would never eat in restaurants, because he said you can't trust the kitchen. He would only eat in private clubs, of which he was indeed a member of several. He only ate white foods, white turkey on white Pepperidge Farm bread, and - except in some cases when he would order Oysters Rockefeller. And he would be at a private club, and he would tell his companion, do you know why they call them Oysters Rockefeller? And they would say, no. He goes, because they're green, you know, the color of money.

He told people that he was worth exactly $400 million. I mean, lie after lie after lie after lie. And his crowning achievement, Clark Rockefeller of New York.

RAZ: Christian Gerhartsreiter, this kid from Germany becomes a part of the American aristocracy. He meets a woman in New York and they end up getting married.

SEAL: Yeah. She was a Harvard MBA, or studying to get her MBA, a bright, intelligent, attractive career woman who felt that he was the smartest man she had ever met.

RAZ: Her name is Sandra Boss. And they get married, they have a child. They eventually end up in Beacon Hill in a $2.5 million house on Beacon Hill in Boston, not too far from the home of Senator John Kerry and other wealthy Bostonites. Even there, people just assumed that this is a Rockefeller.

SEAL: Yes. And by then he had what he claimed to be a billion dollars worth of modern art on his walls, which of course turned out, like everything else, to be a fake. Then his facade began to fall apart.

RAZ: How did that happen?

SEAL: What happened was is that he fell in love with this little girl, Snooks he called her, the daughter...

RAZ: His daughter, right.

SEAL: ...that he and Sandra had together. And as a police investigator told me in the book, everything in this man's life was a lie. The only real thing in his life was his love of his daughter. And when he lost his daughter in a bitter divorce, he began plotting on how to get her back, creating this incredibly intricate plan to kidnap his daughter off a Boston street and take her to Baltimore, where he had set up yet another identity as Chip Smith, a high-seas ship captain.

He had bought a house on an appropriately named street, Ploy Street. And he kidnapped the daughter, and he had a succession of people waiting to ferry him from one place to another, and then he disappeared off the map. And for about four or five, six days nobody knew where he was. But they put out a wanted poster, and people called in and said: hey, I knew him as Christopher Chichester in San Marino, California.

RAZ: Wow.

SEAL: People in Greenwich say: I knew him as Christopher Crowe. People in Baltimore, I knew him as Chip Smith. And it blew the lid off a 30-year con, this kidnapping.

RAZ: He was caught. He was put on trial. He was convicted of kidnapping his daughter. But at least publicly, he never denied being Clark Rockefeller, right? He still insisted that that's who he was.

SEAL: That's right. In the kidnapping trial, he went under the name of Clark Rockefeller. He did not testify. He pled insanity. But so many other people in his life did testify: his first wife, who he had married for the green card, his second wife, people that he knew on Beacon Hill.

So the court was - I mean, it was really interesting. But, you know, I sat in that courtroom, and I thought I knew the story, but it was really only the beginning. I knew that I had to go back to his beginnings in Germany and trace him step by step along the way to really try to understand this man who did not exist.

RAZ: Wow. That's Mark Seal. He's a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of the new book, "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit." It's about Clark Rockefeller. Mark Seal, thank you so much.

SEAL: Thank you, Guy. It's great to be here. I appreciate it.

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